Sitting here, ten years after the debut of Marvel Studio’s first movie, it seems obvious that the MCU would eventually come to dominate the cinemaplex. We were always destined to be spectators to the greatest movie franchise of all time — the franchise that is sure to end all other franchises. However, if you were to roll the clock back to 2008, things were not nearly so certain, and Marvel’s ambitious plan to conquer the world didn’t just seem merely ambitious, it seemed destined for failure. That being said, the seeds for the MCU’s success can be found in the series first entry, Iron Man.
Is Downey playing Stark, or is Stark playing Downey?
Although the first set of movies didn’t get their casting down to a perfect science, there’s no doubt that they struck gold with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. The role fits so perfectly, in fact, that the comics have continued to emphasize Downey’s personality traits that have existed within the characters for decades. The traits were already there, but now they’re impossible to miss. Downey manages to bring an accessible vulnerability that’s usually vacant from earlier comic book portrayals. Only Bill Bixby (The Incredible Hulk TV series) and Christopher Reeve (Superman) before him were able to bring forth the human vulnerability of their characters in spite of their indestructibility. The superheroes of the 90s and 00s were, without exception, paragons of masculine virtue (whether they be male or female was immaterial). They could be physically wounded, but nothing could harm their dedication to their cause, and no one could get them to emote beyond anger and determination. All before Downey’s Stark were unflinching paragons. Stark, in that way, was a libertine who’s virtues changed on a whim. Unlike in most origin stories, where a hero’s moral compass is already set but the inciting event that pushes them toward heroics merely urges them to action, in Iron Man, Stark is pushed to be a hero totally outside his moral equipment. He has a broken moral compass, and it’s no wonder that he has stumbled consistently as a hero in the later films. As Downey’s Stark progresses though the movie, even though his main superpower is snark, you know that his snark is just the suit of iron he’s worn his whole life to protect himself from the obvious — he’s a playboy that sells things that kill people. Through Downey’s performance you see him bring to bear all the feelings of this revelation throughout the film in what really is a very human portrayal of a comic book character. He’s an obsessive genius who is dying, and he doesn’t want his legacy to be death. That obsession is frenetic, and arguably causes more tension for the majority of the film than even our villain. In many ways Stark is his own antagonist and his obsession pushes away all his closest relationships. In all Superhero movies before, the main character pushes people away in an attempt to protect their loved ones. Stark pushes people away because that’s who he is. He’s arrogant, vainglorious, and feels as if he can solve all his problems with his own suit of armor.
Iron Man is a structural masterclass
With all the bloated and overwrought comic book movies of late, I feel like more should go back and watch this movie before writing the script. It does more work in 15 minutes than most movies accomplish in an hour today. From the opening of the credits to the time Stark breaks out of his mountain prison is sixteen minutes. In that sixteen minutes we’ve established everything we need to know about Stark’s upbringing, his career, who his friends are, how he lives his life, and what he believes. We see those concepts get challenged and changed. We see him almost die, we meet his new friend and that friend dies, we see him fight for his life, and we see him create the Iron Man armor. I feel like I’ve watched three of DC’s Superman movies and I’m only just now understanding these basic things about Clark Kent. Everything in this movie is this efficient while also allowing plenty of room for the characters to just live together. Too often in these movies, and the later MCU movies in particular, so many characters are being juggled around with a ponderous plot that characters just don’t have the time to actually interact in a non-life threatening situation. The way that the film crams together all the standard superhero elements and also manages to make each of their core characters feel real is a accomplishment for a movie that’s only a smidge over two hours runtime.
Obadiah Stane is forgettable, but Jeff Bridges is not
I imagine most people don’t remember who the bad guy of the first Iron Man is. Actually, I know this because when I rattle off my list of best marvel performances people look at me sideways, as if I’m playing a trick on them by including The Dude. Was he really in a Marvel movie, they think to themselves. Most vaguely remember the mostly passable final fight in the movie, but for some reason Stane has escaped notice. I think that’s largely because Stane is a truly forgettable villain. In most movies the businessman antagonist would have been relegated to a secondary, or even tertiary villain, someone like Ben Mendelsohn in The Dark Knight Rises. This movie moves forward with him as a main villain, and suffers because Stane isn’t really a physical threat in the conventional superhero sense. He’s not Ultron with an army of drones. He’s not Thanos or Loki. He’s a human businessman who’s spent the majority of his life looking at P&L Reports. That all being said, I’m willing to defend all of these things because Jeff Bridges is excellent in this role. He starts off the movie as a kind and loving father figure to Stark and as the movie progresses, so does the menace in Jeff Bridges’s voice. At the beginning of the movie he’s practically whispering and by the end he’s growling through all his schemes like a man demon possessed. There are three scenes in particular that really sells this.
The first is the reveal to the audience that Stane was the man behind the attack on the convoy, and that Stark was the intended target. It’s the first time we see Stane’s mask slip. Even though we know that this is a whole basket of bad, the ease of Stane to carry discourse with a terrorist leader implies that this isn’t his first rodeo (and in fact I believe that Stane was the man that slipped the Russians the information about Howard Stark in order to get Stark killed by Winter Soldier). Because the movie is so quick, it doesn’t let us settle in on this idea, but it’s there.
The Second is when he’s talking to his scientists about miniaturizing the arc reactor, which is necessary to power the Iron Man weapons systems he’s working on, and the scientists basically says it can’t be done. Bridges moves his finger to the scientist so fast his necktie flaps over his arm and he shouts, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” It’s just a great moment.
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The third, and most important, is when Stane reveals to Stark everything we know about him. It’s one of the best scenes in the whole movie. Most of it is filmed in close up, and when it’s not it’s in a dutch angle with Stark toward the bottom of the frame and Stand towering at the top of the frame. Bridges isn’t yelling or growling in this scene, but he cranks up the menace in the way that only an accomplished veteran actor can do. It’s worth a rewatch if you don’t remember it. My favorite line in the whole thing is, “You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” I could write a whole thing about how Jeff Bridges is, low-key, one of the best performances in the MCU.
When you put all these elements together, it’s no wonder than the film launched the whole MCU. Stark is a fantastically complex character whose personality conflicts often with the majority of the MCU’s principal cast. Most movies could learn from Iron Man’s tight story structure, even if the script as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. It’s unfortunate, however, that the thing the MCU seems to have learned the most from these films was that the snark wasn’t really there for humor, it was Stark’s armor before he had a suit, and the marvel snark devoid of that context is just empty words.